Made in the US but financed by China, Rock Dog – the latest cheap and cheerful toon from the makers of Free Birds and The Book of Life – represents the worst of both worlds. An unharmonious mash up of cultures, the film might just have scraped by as passable kiddy fare were it better balanced in gender casting and less offensively blatant as an example of American globalisation. It’s based on, Chinese Rock Singer/Songwriter, Zheng Jun’s manga book: Tibetan Rock Dog but might as well be based in New York for all anyone cares. The film’s already bombed in China and, frankly, it deserved to.
In an amiably animated prologue, Khampa (J. K. Simmons), a Tibetan Mastiff, is the guard to a flock of sheep (yep, start counting ‘em) living in the village of Snow Mountain. When a gangster posse of nasty wolves attack he alone is able to fend them off by using a pseudo-martial-arts move called ‘Deadly Mastiff Paw’ but it seems certain that they will return to strike again. If this sounds familiar it’s because, so far, the plot is basically that of Kung Fu Panda.
Bodi (Luke Wilson) is Khampa’s son and it is he who will take on his father’s responsibilities after Khampa has retired. The problem, however, is that Bodi’s passions lie not in security management but instead in music, whilst he finds difficulty in mastering his father’s signature move – he is, as Khampa explains, unable to ‘find the fire’. To buy time, Khampa recruits the sheep as faux-guards, dressing them up in Mastiff costumes to fool the wolves (‘If the enemy think’s there’s an army, they won’t invade’) and bans music from the village to remove it as a distraction for Bodi. It is, thus, presumably a symbolic move by director Ash Brannon to transform the film’s animated styling from quirky to creatively-repressed computerised generics.
When a grown-up Bodi is Newtonially presented with a radio dropping from an overflying plane, he is reintroduced to the beat of guitar music and hears of the first time the voice of its creator: Angus Scattergood – Eddie Izzard as an Ozzie Osborne modelled British rock legend suffering from writers block. It’s not long before Bodi’s set off to the big city to find Scattergood, the vibe and himself. He is, however, unknowingly pursued on the journey by the wolves and their semi-logical ploy to do something – who actually cares?
There is a moment in the film when the animated view zooms in upon Bodi’s eye. It reminded me of a similar instance in Toy Story 2 – a film which saw Brannon win Annie Award in 2000 for his outstanding collaboratory work – during Jessie’s devastating montage of abandonment. There, the character had a glint to her eye, granting a genuine window into her soul and a human and utterly relatable quality of realisation. Here, Bodi’s eye is a black hole. As the shot enters his eye there is nothing there waiting, like the film itself, this is character who is wholly soulless. It is as lazy and wilfully manufactured as the lyrics which clog up the soundtrack: ‘We love to rock and roll, it’s just the way it goes, yeaaah’. It is a film that’s attitude to its audience matches that of Khampa’s to his sheep: ‘they’re like a bunch of animals who can’t think for themselves’.
Were it not enough that Rock Dog is boringly bland, it is also offensively unprogressive. I am well aware that my antagonisms towards the film are grounded in issues that will go straight over the heads of its intended audience but that is in itself part of the problem. Bodi has no mother – a figure not even mentioned – whilst his village is seemingly entirely masculine. The only female character who actually has a name in the script is a peripheral fox called Darma (Mae Whitman). Call me a cynic but, seriously, a fox?! Notice too just how American the film so blatantly feels. The city is clearly supposed to be a local futuristic metropolis (in Tibet?) but has a population which includes a hippo (in TIBET?!). One character (in TIBET) even makes a joke about Pasadena (IN TIBET).
The less said about the cast the better, with Izzard coming across as particularly bored in the process of collecting his pay check, but needless to say that laziness is contagious. Very young viewers may have found entertainment in moments such as that in which Bodi escapes from home by dropping out of the window behind his father’s back, but this age group can’t even see the film because it’s been given a PG rating by the BBFC. I chuckled once and smiled a few times myself, but this is praise I am loathed to divulge.
Whilst far from the abhorrently unbearable watch that was last year’s similarly dreadful Top Cat Begins, Rock Dog is nonetheless exemplary of a propagation of backward ideological structures which are intolerable. Avoid.